The Ralph Nader running for President this year is quite a different person from the driven crusader whom I first met as a young reporter, covering the advent of his public-interest movement three decades ago. The “new” Nader (if I can borrow a conceit of retread pols like Richard Nixon) still possesses the awesome idealism and informed anger, the same sweeping intellect and energy. No one would say mellow. But Nader’s political focus seems deeper now and richer to me. He is less the public scold of the stereotype, more like an anguished humanist, angered by larger failures in our national life and reaching now for political changes that are more fundamental.
He became famous, issue by issue, as a freelance consumer advocate. Now he wants to talk about a “social wage” for Americans, about taxing wealth and restoring the public’s control over public assets like the broadcast spectrum. These and other provocative ideas will probably be viewed as over-the-top radical by campaign reporters. For lots of citizens, if they actually get to hear him, what he’s proposing may sound like common sense. Late in his career, Ralph Nader is thinking anew about the big questions, which I find appealing and promising.
The evolution may not be apparent to campaign audiences or the news media. Nader is like an intellectual pack rat who saves every important fact and idea, never forgets any of them and frequently retrieves long-ago insights to discuss a bewildering variety of subjects. He is not just uncharismatic but anticharismatic. The intensity sometimes exhausts listeners, who wish for shorter speeches, and it is a special handicap for any candidate in modern politics who is supposed to “stay on message,” not educate citizens or engage them in a democratic dialogue. The “new” Nader will not be heard unless he disciplines himself to define a short list of big messages and stick to them–the big ideas he hopes to inject into the inert center of US politics. This is possible and terribly important, but Nader’s self-discipline is still evolving.
Like everyone else, I was dazzled by the Nader story and his singular courage, but, younger and somewhat wise-ass, I kept a skeptical distance from his vision. “The Lone Ranger,” I once called him, “a postindustrial version of Quixote.” Nader pounded on me afterward for trivializing the citizen movement by promoting the false icon of celebrity. Why was I writing personality fluff when I could be out there investigating corporate power? The righteous scolding was familiar to everyone around him, yet it somehow encouraged our affection.
Nader’s original idea was the romantic conviction that awakening individual Americans to become “public citizens” like himself could rescue democracy from the entrenched interests and restore the integrity of both government and the marketplace. His Jeffersonian idealism captivated (and flattered) the public and drew many idealistic young people into civic action. Nader’s Raiders and his galaxy of public-interest organizations had enormous impact mainly from scorching factual exposés, a blizzard of stunning investigative reports on everything from unsafe cars to polluted rivers. The shock and public outrage won stronger regulatory laws and liberated some regulatory agencies from the captive grip of the industries they were meant to regulate. Nader’s model was closely patterned after the “good government” Progressives of the early twentieth century, and he pursued many of the same issues–dirty meat, unsafe drugs, corporate power, corrupted government.